Nate Ryan

Ryan: A fitting opening farewell for Jimmie Johnson, the family man

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CONCORD, N.C. – The midafternoon rays poured through the plate glass picture windows, and illumination suddenly came for this unusually late green flag on a momentous announcement befitting a much earlier timeslot.

Now it made sense: The backdrop of a gorgeous November sunset stretched across the sprawling campus of Hendrick Motorsports was the perfect setting to discuss the dusk of Jimmie Johnson’s career.

Except that wasn’t the reason for holding this opening farewell at the curious start time of 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon.

This wasn’t about an ending. The big clue in timing was at the beginning of the news conference to announce the final chapter of perhaps the greatest career in NASCAR history.

FRIDAY 5: Johnson’s final Cup season also marks final tribute to a friend

“Girls, please join us,” host Winston Kelley called out to Johnson’s daughters, Genevieve and Lydia, who scrambled up the stage in their floral and pink dresses.

“On behalf of our entire family, we would like to thank you for all being here,” Genevieve confidently told the crowd. “Today is a very special announcement. We would like to ask Mr. Hendrick of Hendrick Motorsports and the driver of the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet, seven-time NASCAR champion and our dad, Jimmie Johnson, to please join us on the stage.”

To explain his full-time departure from NASCAR’s premier circuit in 2020, Jimmie Johnson scheduled a news conference at 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon because his kids had tests that couldn’t be rescheduled to pull them out of school.

Given their impact on his life-changing decision, he wanted them present. Genevieve, 9, was still “processing the news,” and Lydia, 6, barely feigned interest when dad tried to show her a video Wednesday morning that he soon would post to social media to tell the world.

“Breakfast is a very important part of the day, a focal point for my kids,” Johnson said with a chuckle. “Lydia was midway through her pancakes and could not be bothered and wanted me to pass the butter.”

It turns out Johnson’s youngest can be a tough nut to crack just like the seven-time champion sometimes can be, and Thursday was the most quintessential of Jimmie Johnson news conferences.

Over the course of 45 minutes, there was hardly an ounce of sentimentality about his vast accomplishments. With the exception of a brief quaver and a couple of tears shed at team owner Rick Hendrick’s closing remarks, there was no discernible emotion.

“I’m just very, very thankful for relationships that I’ve built in this sport,” Johnson, 44, said in wrapping up. “My mind is running wild on me right now, and I’m trying not to cry.

That was as close as he got.


Complete and cool detachment, total focus under duress and mental toughness always have been overlooked hallmarks of Johnson’s greatness. They also burn brightly during interviews focusing solely on his life and a career that has featured 83 wins in NASCAR’s premier series and an unprecedented five consecutive championships.

Away from the track, it also includes a 2019 Boston Marathon appearance, thousands of miles in competitive cycling and more than $11.5 million donated through his foundation to schools, hospitals and charities that focus on children in need.

But Johnson rarely reflects publicly in meaningful ways on all that he’s done.

You always have to look harder (because humility keeps him from tipping his hand) to fully understand what drives this once-in-a-generation athlete who might have won the Tour de France instead of the Daytona 500 if he’d put his mind to it.

But once you do, it all makes sense.

“That’s the one thing that people don’t realize about Jimmie,” said longtime crew chief Chad Knaus, who guided Johnson to all his championships while also becoming a best friend. “And I’ve been able to witness it firsthand. When he puts his mind to something, he sets the goals, and he achieves them. Every one of us wants to go and lose weight. Every one of us wants to eat better. And we all halfheartedly attempt to make those goals and actually complete them. He just does it. He’s a pretty special person from that standpoint.”

It’s perhaps the primary reason he has been so wildly successful and why he was so laser-focused Thursday on his performance in his 19th and final season in 2020. He hardly mentioned his family after the introduction even when pressed for how they had influenced his decision.

“I knew that at some point, that was really going to really weigh on me to want to be around (family) a lot more,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to believe they are 9 and 6 now, and that much time has elapsed, but I just have a fire in me to push for that and stay at the track.

“I still have that fire, and I am coming back next year. Next year is not a mail-it-in year. It’s a year we are going to win races and compete for a championship. So I know I can give what I need to this team for another year. After that, I’m ready to have some time back on my side and just have a better balance in life.”

There were glimpses of that balance after Thursday’s program when he spent 20 minutes taking photos with close friends and family.

The first thing he tweeted Friday morning was a collage of his daughters and his wife, Chandra, underscoring their importance in throttling back.

Knaus can relate after becoming a first-time father himself last year to Kipling.

“I would give up every championship and every race win for my son,” Knaus said. “Anybody that has children can identify with that. I never knew the impact that Kipling was going to have on me.

“For Jimmie to have those same emotions for two girls, I can’t even begin to imagine how he’s lasted as long as he has. It’s pretty remarkable, but he’s going to be a great dad. They’re going to have somebody to come home crying to when they have a bad day at school, and he’s going to be there. He’s not going to be necessarily in New Hampshire, Atlanta, Pocono, where he’s not there to share it with them.”

Crew chief Cliff Daniels said Johnson had indicated he needed to step back because he virtually would have no other way to know if his girls needed him more.

“It’s interesting how grateful he has been the whole time that his girls and Chani have supported him no matter what and openly told him as long as he wants to keep driving, they will support him,” Daniels said. “To have that support, I almost think made him a little more introspective to say ‘OK, am I doing the right thing to continue to require this sort of patience and sacrifice from them?’

“I know it is a factor, and he just wants to be at a place in his life where he can enjoy his family, enjoy his career and take a breath.”

Chandra Johnson smiles during the news conference for her husband, Jimmie Johnson (AP Photo/Bob Leverone).

As usual with Johnson, you don’t get nearly as much out of him about himself.

He is always accommodating and among the most well-spoken NASCAR drivers for delivering big-picture quotes that can be sharply critical.

He falls into opacity when asked to turn the lens inward, leaning back on a bevy of buzzwords (“headspace”, or just “space”, is often popular) to explain himself in often unintentionally cryptic ways.

It’s better to ask those who know him best about the decision to end his career.

Daniels was given the news in a Tuesday night dinner at Haberdish, a Southern comfort food restaurant in Charlotte’s NoDa arts district (near a gallery owned by his wife).

Over two to three hours of conversation, Daniels could tell Johnson was at peace with the decision after consecutive winless seasons but no less inspired to end on a high note after missing the playoffs for the first time in 2019.

“It was a completely refreshing conversation,” Daniels said. “It wasn’t a shocking surprise. … To know he is still very positive about himself really means a lot to me because I know we’re going to see that on the racetrack next year. We’re going to see a guy who’s energized, excited, kind of rejuvenated to really go out on top, and I think he’s more than capable.”

Jeff Gordon, who hand-picked Johnson as the driver of Hendrick’s No. 48 after being impressed in an Xfinity race nearly 20 years ago, said his former protegé already had made up his mind about full-time retirement when they recently met for coffee … and likely long before that.

“Heck, I can remember when I was retiring (in 2015), hearing just a few questions that maybe he asked about the process and what made me decide that was the time,” Gordon said. “But the last couple of weeks, he and I got together, and it was more us just bouncing thoughts and ideas as friends.”

So what is next after 2020?

Probably something in racing. There are hints about sports cars (Johnson has raced in but has yet to win the Rolex 24) and IndyCar races on street and road courses. The World of Outlaws tweeted an invite to run a sprint car.

“He’s very committed and nothing will stop him, so who knows,” Gordon said of Johnson. “I got to compete against him in basically the same equipment, and I can tell you I’ve never raced with anybody better. That’s why I respect him so much. I’ll just second what a lot of people have been saying is the way he’s done it. To do it with class, style, his own way. I appreciate that.”

“I looked up to other drivers and either tried to emulate them or tried to beat them and hopefully force them to step their game up. I hope that I did that for others, but I can tell you 100% Jimmie did that for me and others, I’m sure. I thought that I had things figured out, and then Jimmie Johnson comes along and starts beating me on a regular basis. It forced me to look within myself and go, ‘OK, what am I not doing? What more can I do?’ He elevated my game.”


Johnson always has tried to downplay that legacy and did so again Thursday by nothing he’s “not very smart.” He unfailingly has presented himself for nearly 20 years as just the simple son of a heavy machinery operator and a school bus driver from a lower-middle class trailer park in El Cajon, California.

Such a backstory should have resonated more with NASCAR’s blue-collar fan base, which mostly seems to overlook his fun-loving side that was baked in the freewheeling Southern California sun.

Car owner Rick Hendrick was right to call Johnson “the perfect driver” as far as talent, sponsor relations and physical commitment. “You never had to make an excuse for Jimmie Johnson,” Hendrick said. “He was always on his mark. He never embarrassed anybody. He is a role model and an athlete that I’ve never seen in any kind of sport.”

But his driver also is no saint, and he knows how to have fun. He celebrated his first championship with an ill-advised and alcohol-drenched surfing stunt atop a golf cart at a charity tournament, resulting in a tumble and a broken wrist.

On an entryway table Thursday, Johnson offered a media gift – 50 ml glass bottles of Patron Silver – that was a nod to an upstanding seven-time champion who also favored tequila shots with his team members in an anteroom at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas — an annual tradition they started during NASCAR Champion’s Week.

Jimmie Johnson’s gift for those attending his news conference Thursday (AP Photo/Bob Leverone).

But Johnson always has resisted — not on purpose, mind you, it’s just the way he’s wired to be reserved and humble on camera — the attempts to jam him into the boxes that conveniently would explain how a relative unknown showed up in 2002 and effortlessly outran heralded teammate Gordon to reach NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore (albeit in the Teddy Roosevelt position).

It’s made it more difficult to appreciate how great Johnson is

When he is inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2024, Johnson will take his rightful place alongside Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty. He is their equal in on-track titles and as an off-track ambassador.

The comparisons stop there, though. Johnson is extremely well-liked among his peers but never has been labeled as the Mr. Congeniality of Petty or having the John Wayne swagger of Earnhardt.

This is more an indictment of us than him. Johnson always has compartmentalized his feelings, but he also has done it with dignity and earnestness that sometimes is mischaracterized as robotic and vanilla.

In a racing series that has celebrated bad guys, he frequently has been criticized for just being too … good.

“On the track, off the track; I mean I think sometimes people didn’t respect him because he was too perfect,” Hendrick said. “You know, that he didn’t have that big edge. But he could win and do it like that and be a gentleman and race people clean and ever had any problems. And so when history looks back at him, they’ll say that this guy was an unbelievable athlete (and) father, and he and Chani give so much away

“In every box that you check in life (like) what you do with kids, how you raise your family, and you’re a champion. And every sponsor that he’s had, they love him to death. I just think the stats speak for themselves. But people are going to remember the man, Jimmie Johnson.”

And soon he’ll be just the family man.

With much more time to enjoy the sunsets with his girls.

Joe Gibbs Racing among serious bidders to build Next Gen chassis

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – When NASCAR initially set a 2021 deadline for launching its NextGen car, Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson was skeptical of the timeframe.

Nearly a year later, he believes NASCAR’s overhaul is on track for next season, but he still has reservations about the aggressive rollout of a project that he compares with one of the most ambitious undertakings of the 20th century.

“We need another year, really,” Wilson told NBCSports.com last week about the release of the new car. “Because here’s my concern: We can’t afford to get this wrong. But the analogy is when NASA is doing a moon shot or rocket launch, that’s pretty well thought out, and they’re not afraid to pull the date back. What we’re doing in a relative sense feels like the same thing.

“There’s going to be more change in a year than this sport has seen in the past 60 years combined. Cumulative. It’s a revolutionary change. We as an industry need to get this right.”

During his annual address of the news media Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, NASCAR president Steve Phelps reaffirmed multiple times that the Next Gen is on pace for a 2021 debut.

A prototype of the car recently made its debut at Richmond Raceway with Austin Dillon (whose Richard Childress Racing team worked with NASCAR to build the prototype), but Cup teams likely won’t take delivery on a real-world version to test until next July.

Using a Request For Proposal-type process, NASCAR is soliciting bids on suppliers for the various stock elements that the new car will have, principally the chassis (in a structure that will resemble how Dallara supplies IndyCar teams with a standard chassis).

“The car is on schedule,” Phelps said. “I have to give a shoutout to, again, really the entire industry because they’re working collaboratively.  NASCAR runs the process, but there are teams that are involved, (manufacturers) that are involved, and that’s how we’re going to be successful moving forward.”

Multiple people familiar with the Next Gen process but who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly told NBCSports.com that there are at least three companies being considered seriously to build the chassis.

That list includes Joe Gibbs Racing, which is one of multiple Cup teams that inquired about bidding on the chassis.

It isn’t unusual for a Cup team to build chassis for others (such as Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing and JGR) have counted rivals as clients. But it would be new to have a single team that builds chassis for the entire field.

Phelps mostly demurred when asked by NBCSports.com how NASCAR would handle that arrangement.

“With respect to those that are in the RFPs to build the car, I don’t want to get into specifics about where that is,” Phelps said. “There would obviously need to be a separation between that race team and whatever part or the vehicle itself that’s being put together.

“If there is a team that is interested in competing for what that’s going to be, it would have to be kind of removed from what that organization is.”

Wilson said TRD favors Cup teams getting involved in the business of building the new car because of their familiarity with the output.

“It’s kind of polarizing because of the perceived advantage for the team that’s supplying, but the reason I say that it works to our favor is because nobody understands like a team does what it means to make a quality part,” he said.

Goodyear’s move from a 15- to 18-inch wheel with the new car also will need to be factored into the timeline of the rollout. Goodyear’s Greg Stucker said Thursday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR’s The Morning Drive that it’ll be a “significant change,” but that the tire supplier is on schedule with NASCAR and teams.

Ford Performance global director Mark Rushbrook said nearly 10 months ago that he was optimistic about having the new car by 2021 and reiterated his enthusiasm in a Saturday news conference with manufacturer executives hosted by NASCAR.

“It’s a very exciting time for NASCAR,” Rushbrook said. “To see all the technology and architecture changes that are going into Next Gen, it’s had a very successful test already. I think the fans are going to be excited once they see the final versions of the car. And then leading beyond ’21 to further technology with hybrid I think is important for all of us as manufacturers.”

The commonality of the new car should eliminate the assembly lines that many teams have and result in cost savings (in part by trimming staff). That theoretically should lower the barrier of entry to NASCAR for new teams and manufacturers (NASCAR courted a prospective automaker two weeks ago in Phoenix, according to Phelps).

Ed Laukes, group vice president of marketing for Toyota Motor North America, said the cost reductions were “overdue and had to happen, so one way or another there needs to be new blood brought into the sport, new team ownership brought into the sport, and this is the way that it’s going to happen. I think the vision of (NASCAR chairman) Jim France and of NASCAR right now was very, very appropriate.”

The new car also will enhance showroom relevance with the addition of independent rear suspension.

“When you see the proportions of this car, it fits the production vehicle even better, particularly in the rear,” said Jim Campbell, U.S. vice president of performance and motorsports for Chevrolet. “It matches up to where the Camaro is, and we’re really quite excited about that. Finally, we’ve got symmetry between left‑ and right‑hand side. We needed that so it looks more like the street car.  We’ll have a wheel that really mirrors a little bit closer to what you see on the production side in terms of size.”

Phelps said NASCAR has another test of the new car in a few weeks, and Toyota had a Next Gen body in a wind tunnel last week for the second time.

“I handicapped the possibility of racing in ’21 (with the Next Gen car) as a very slim chance,” Wilson said. “I have to eat a little crow. It is on the calendar as they laid out. On paper, it certainly looks like ’21, and certainly Jim France has not given one inch to hedging that.

“I will say that everything has to go to that schedule. There’s no margin for slipping.”

Wilson also believes there needs to be more than one vendor available for some parts to safeguard against unforeseen emergencies and faulty manufacturing.

“I was talking to Steve O’Donnell and Jim France at Charlotte just kind of cautioning them relative to the slippery slope that you have with a single-source supplier,” Wilson said. “Anecdotally, we used to have one valve-spring supplier, and that bit us in the butt. Now we have two. The issue there is very pragmatic, in case say you have a fire that takes out your factory. But the other side is you have a bad batch of material or something that puts you in a tough spot, and you don’t have a backup.

“So just suggesting that they use some, not common sense per se, but that they think about contingencies relative to the supply of parts and pieces.”

Wilson also believes a backup is needed for keeping the 2020 cars in place just in case NASCAR is unable to hit the 2021 target.

But he added the financial straits that many teams are facing have made the ’21 deadline a necessary reality for the NASCAR industry.

“We all know there are teams on the precipice of failing. So there is a lot of pressure,” Wilson said. “We appreciate and respect that there are parts of our sport that are in trouble.

“The team ownership model is nuts. So it’s not that we shouldn’t be attempting (the Next Gen in ’21). But we just need to get it right. If we can’t — hand on heart — make that target in ’21, we need to be prepared with a contingency plan.”

Call to ‘dance with the fire’ leaves Denny Hamlin burned on pit gamble

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – There were several aggressive calls by Chris Gabehart that got Denny Hamlin back to the championship round this season.

But the first-year crew chief’s final gamble might have cost Hamlin the championship.

With Hamlin running second and closing in on Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, the No. 11 team applied a thick swath of tape to the right side of Hamlin’s front grille in the hope of gaining speed during its last scheduled pit stop with 58 laps remaining.

The aerodynamic adjustment backfired, forcing Hamlin to pit again 12 laps later with an engine on the verge of overheating.

“We beat ourselves right here just trying to get too much because that’s what you do in the championship race of the playoffs,” Gabehart said. “We just tried to pull off a really difficult play and didn’t get it done and unfortunately, as good as our car was at the end, I don’t know if we needed it anyway, but a race team isn’t going to be this good because they don’t live by the fire.

“You’ve got to dance with the fire to beat these guys. That’s what this race team does, but the problem with dancing with it is, every now and then you get burned.”

Hamlin, who rebounded to finish 10th despite the race staying green through the end, seemed fine with the tradeoff. He and Gabehart had a short and upbeat conversation outside his car after the race that ended with mutual pats on the shoulder.

Hamlin smiled and shrugged his way through several questions about the call, noting that similar strategic aggression by Gabehart had contributed to him scoring six victories in 2019 (his most in nine years) – including a clutch victory at ISM Raceway last week (sealing it on another aggressive call for two tires)

After overcoming a mediocre first two stages, Hamlin led his first (and only) two laps after a final restart with 101 laps remaining. He was within striking distance with Busch when he made the fateful pit stop, and his engine temperature began to spike to its limits.

With more than 40 laps remaining, there was no hope of the engine living through the checkered flag without “a miracle” or a caution flag, so Hamlin was forced to stop.

“It was going to blow up or run out of water, and at that point, if I stayed out and was going to blow, now it’s going to possibly screw my teammates over out of getting a win,” Hamlin said. “We were a stone’s throw to Kyle, and at the end of the runs, we’d run back to him

“At that point, our car woke up, I woke up, and it was fast. It was going to be fun. I was really looking forward to running those last 40 laps, 50 laps. And having the challenge of ‘Can I get them?’ ”

Gabehart thought his driver could with the help of a risky adjustment that was highly unfamiliar for his team to make under pressure.

“It’s uncharted territory for how our cars are built,” Gabehart said. “There’s no need to get into more specifics than that. We just didn’t execute that play. I wish I could have it back and just not have been so greedy there. I don’t know that we needed it anyway. I think we were at least going to get there, which is all you can ask for, right? Line up at the end with a shot.

“And we had a shot. Golly. We were awful. We were awful for two straight stages, and Denny Hamlin says we are not done. I don’t care. I’m going to drive this race car all the way to the end of this race because I believe in my race team. They will get it better. And at the start of that last stage, we got it better, and we had a shot at them and we just got burned.”

The tape was hastily slapped on the car just as Hamlin was leaving the car, but Gabehart said he was fully responsible for the error and wasn’t angry at his pit crew.

“Oh heck no, man,” he said. “This is pro sports. Winners want the ball and take the shot, and sometimes they miss it. And my race team is full of winners, and they want the ball. That doesn’t mean they’re going to execute every time, but they want the ball.

“It has nothing to do with the pit crew. I am the leader of this race team. I called an aggressive play. They tried to execute it, because that’s what they do. That’s what their job is. And it doesn’t mean they’re going to make it every time. But this is not in their playbook. What we tried to pull off right here is trying to win Homestead and let the emotion of the moment get the best of you trying to do it and we just got too aggressive plain and simple. That’s OK. That’s on me.”

Hindsight was even more painful given how fast the No. 11 was after the unscheduled stop. Gabehart said Hamlin probably wouldn’t have needed the tape.

“But in the heat of the moment, and you’re fighting for your life, you want every last hundredth of a second, so that’s the nature of what we do,” Gabehart said. “We tried to get every last hundredth of a second, and that’s what we did, and it just didn’t work out.”

Did Hamlin think he could have won without the extra stop?

“I don’t know,” he said. “It remains to be seen, right? I stayed right there within a couple of seconds of (Busch), but at this racetrack, you can’t use all the tricks until the end because it puts your car at risk, but I was getting ready to give it all I had. I’d empty the tank and if we crash, we crash. Who knows.

“(Busch) was very good, let’s not discredit that. But would have loved the shot to get him.”

No one else seemed to think less of the effort by Hamlin, who received nonstop well wishes and autograph requests from track workers and fans on the short walk from his car to the media center.

Former crew chief Darian Grubb congratulated him with a handshake. Austin Peyton, his childhood friend and longtime personal manager, gave him a hug as they walked together. Cup Series director Jay Fabian offered a hearty “Good job” and more words of encouragement.

Though there was no postrace visit as there had been in 2014 from Michael Jordan (the NBA legend was in attendance again and chatted with Hamlin before the race), Hamlin at least could look forward to a birthday celebration Sunday (he will turn 39) and a party to celebrate his season.

With no regrets.

“I was frustrated for sure (by the pit stop miscue), but (Gabehart) is going for it,” Hamlin said. “He is going for it. It’s just the way it is.

“We’ll go next year and win a lot of races. We’re going to win a lot. Hopefully get ourselves back in this position again, learn from it and see what happens.”

Crew chief Chris Gabehart watches practice Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway (AP Photo/Terry Renna).

Kyle Busch wins second Cup championship with victory at Miami

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Kyle Busch captured his second Cup championship Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, triumphing as his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates stumbled in the season finale.

The No. 18 Toyota driver ended a 21-race winless drought dating to June, scoring his fifth victory of the season.

Busch took the lead on a Lap 170 restart from teammate Denny Hamlin and commanded the final 97 laps as the race stayed green.

“We have a great race team and a great owner and the best sponsor in sports,” Busch told NBC. “Thank you to everyone for this opportunity. I may be the one who hoists the trophy or to have a championship, but it wouldn’t be possible without (crew chief) Adam Stevens, (owner) coach Joe Gibbs, J.D. Gibbs,  Coy Gibbs, the whole family. … This (Toyota Racing Development) engine was awesome tonight. It’s been awesome all year, we had one issue. It’s so much fun to work with these guys and this group. Everybody that puts it all together for me. There’s alway your doubters, there’s always your haters. But you know what? This one’s for Rowdy Nation, ’cause you guys are the best.”

Click here for final results

Click here for final 2019 season standings

As for the other Championship 4 drivers, Martin Truex Jr. finished second, while Kevin Harvick was fourth, and Hamlin wound up 10th. Joe Gibbs Racing actually placed all four of its drivers in the top 10, as teammate Erik Jones finished third to make it a 1-2-3 JGR finish.

Hamlin encountered major trouble after his team applied too much tape to the front grille of the No. 11 Toyota on a Lap 209 pit stop under green. He was forced to pit again, dooming his title bid.

Truex controlled Stage 1, moving into first after Harvick led the first 20 laps.

Truex led 59 of the next 60 laps, often building a lead of more than seven seconds. By the end of the stage, 27 of the 40 cars had fallen a lap down because of the No. 19 Toyota’s blistering speed.

Truex led 39 of the next 40 laps to start Stage 2 before disaster struck. During a Lap 120 pit stop under green, his crew mixed up the left- and right-side front tires. That necessitated another stop under green for Truex, who re-emerged a lap down in 13th.

He got back on the lead lap when the caution flew for a spin by John Hunter Nemechek on Lap 137.

After restarting in 13th, Truex zoomed back into the top five within 10 laps. When the second stage ended, Truex was in fourth behind Busch, Harvick and Kyle Larson and just ahead of Hamlin.

Truex and Hamlin each picked up a spot during pit stops under the stage-ending yellow, and the Championship 4 restarted as the top four with 101 laps remaining.

Stage 1 winner: Martin Truex Jr.

Stage 2 winner: Kyle Busch

Who else had a good race: The win by Kyle Busch was the 19th of the season for JGR, setting a new modern day (since 1972) record for most Cup wins by an organization in a single season, breaking Hendrick Motorsports’ old mark of 18 set in 2007. … Last year’s champion, Joey Logano, who fell short of reaching Homestead last week in the race at Phoenix, finished fifth.

Who had a bad race: Kyle Larson was running in the top five but suffered engine issues on Lap 209 that forced him out of the race and relegated him to a last-place finish in the 40-car field.

Notable: Here’s how drivers who made their final appearances with their current teams – or their final full-time race in the Cup Series – fared: Daniel Hemric (12th), Daniel Suarez (14th), Chris Buescher (16th), Paul Menard (17th), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (19th), Matt DiBenedetto (20th) and David Ragan (27th). … Hemric wrapped up the season by winning NASCAR Cup Rookie of the Year honors.

What’s next: The 2020 NASCAR Cup season opens at Daytona International Speedway on February 16 at 2:30 p.m. ET.

NASCAR fan Michael Jordan attends race: ‘I hope Denny can pull it out’

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Longtime NASCAR fan Michael Jordan is back at Homestead-Miami Speedway, supporting friend Denny Hamlin in the championship round.

Jordan is a frequent golfing partner of Hamlin, whom he befriended several years ago.

The NBA legend also attended the 2014 season finale and was among the first to greet Hamlin postrace when he exited his No. 11 Toyota after coming up short of winning his first title.

Here’s what Jordan told NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a prerace interview Sunday:

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: I’m down there with the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan. Michael, what brings you to the race today?

Michael Jordan: “I’m a big racing fan. Started off when I was a kid. Grew up watching your dad, Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, which was the original 11 that I remember. Now I’m good friends with Denny Hamlin. We go way back. He’s a season ticket holder at the Hornets. I spend a lot of time playing golf with him, and obviously I’m a big NASCAR fan, so I came out to support him.”

DEJ: How long has that friendship been with Denny?

MJ: “About seven years ago. I’ve known Denny for seven years. He’s just gotten better. And obviously, my interest in the sport has been there for a long period of time. I love watching. I set my clock every Sunday to watch NASCAR, and I pay attention, and actually I enjoy spending time with him.”

DEJ: You’re the owner of the Charlotte Hornets. Have you ever thought about becoming a NASCAR owner?

MJ (chuckling): “No, I’ve got a lot on my plate. I love being a fan. I still understand the sport, but in terms of ownership, nah, I think I’m just going to sit back and watch it and support from afar.”

DEJ: We love that you’re here. We appreciate it. I hope Denny can pull it off for you today. You guys get to celebrate in victory lane. You’re going to victory lane, right?

MJ: “Oh, I’ll be there. If he wins. At the end of the day, you’ve got some real good race drivers today. I watched you guys earlier, and you said anyone of the four can win. It’s going to be a good championship. I watched Xfinity yesterday, and it was a good championship with those guys. I expect it to be the same today. And I hope Denny can pull it out.”